There’s a lot of hype about the importance of first impressions. You never get a second chance, etc. etc. To a certain extent, this hype may overemphasize the importance of first impressions. After all, if you don’t reinforce that first encounter with a series of subsequent good impressions, the best first impression will cease to matter. But it’s certainly true that, in some instances, you will only get one shot at making an impression at all. In cases like job interviews or first contact with potential employers or investors, a poor first impression could lead to your being written off entirely. Even in cases where you have the opportunity to recuperate a first impression fail, you may end up having to work really hard to correct that initial judgment. So it’s worthwhile to make sure your first impression is a good one.
It’s particularly important in the context of communication with professors, since in general, if students are contacting me by e-mail before we’ve met, it’s most likely because they want something. Sometimes they are asking me to give them advance information about a class. Frequently, it’s a request to let them into a class that’s full, or allow them to miss and make up the first day or week of class. Even if they’re not asking for special consideration or accommodations, they almost always are contacting me because they plan to take a course with me in the near future. This means that the impression made by this first contact will have consequences; it may directly impact my decision to accommodate them, and it will most certainly influence my perception of them, in ways that could influence my response to them once they join my class.
So, from a professor’s point of view, here are some tips on how to make a good first impression when initiating first contact via e-mail.
1. Observe the niceties.
E-mail or not, when you contact someone in a professional context – especially when we’re talking first contact, and you don’t know anything about the person – always give a nod to the conventions of letter writing. You don’t necessarily have to be super formal, but these conventions are often seen as a sign of courtesy, so the basic form of a letter is both appropriate and polite. Start with what we old timers call a salutation – a “Dear X,” or “Hello X,” before jumping right into your message. Introduce yourself at the beginning. Finish with a nice “Sincerely…,” or “Regards…,”. It’s not only courteous, it shows that you put a little bit of time and thought into the e-mail you wrote.
You can also demonstrate this by putting some effort into using the English language properly. I’m not saying your professors expect you to do a grammar check of every e-mail or bust out the thesaurus (though, frankly, it wouldn’t hurt). But if you need to make a good first impression, taking a little extra time to read through your message once or twice, correct any typos, make sure your sentences make sense, and you haven’t repeated yourself, is absolutely essential. And any e-mails to your profs should read more like letters than text messages – use capitalization, punctuation, and complete sentences, and don’t overuse abbreviations. There’s nothing more annoying than receiving an e-mail that a student seems to have put neither time not attention into, while asking me to give my time and attention to reading and responding to it.
2. Say my name.
My previous post on e-mail communication basics mentioned the importance of getting the other person’s name right in any professional correspondence. This is especially crucial in making your first impression. Not only should you check that you have the right name, and you’re spelling it correctly, you should also look for any clues as to which title to use (e.g., Dr. or Mr./Ms.). If you’ve tracked down your professor via a personal webpage, or department bio, the name may be listed with the prof’s title. If so, use the title/name as it is listed in the bio when addressing your correspondent. If not, the page may mention if the person has a Ph.D. – if so, you can address him/her as “Dr. So-and-so” when you write; even if it turns out s/he doesn’t normally use the title, using it accords with convention and is a sign of respect for the person’s achievements, so it’s unlikely to offend.
On the other hand, if you’re not sure what title would be appropriate, I would generally use the title Professor, as in “Dear Professor So-and-so.” Professor is used as an official title (as in Professor vs. Asst. Professor vs. Assoc. Professor), but also a general title to refer to all faculty at a university; as such, it recognizes with respect the faculty member’s status, in a way that’s not tied to a specific degree or position. It is also gender-neutral, so it avoids the uncertainty of whether to use Mr. or Ms. when you don’t know the gender of the person you are contacting, or which pronouns are preferred.
Once you’ve heard back from your correspondent, of course, you should look to see how s/he identifies him/herself, and follow suit.
3. Be thoughtful.
By which I mean think about the nature of your request and how the other person is likely to perceive it, and use that to structure how you present your request.
For example, if a student e-mails me to tell me that they will have to miss the first day of class, and to ask to make up the work, I expect him/her to recognize the significance of this request. The students all have an obligation to come to class and do the work, and this student is asking to be released from that obligation – that requires some justification, some extenuating circumstances. In this case, the student should definitely explain why s/he cannot fulfill this obligation, both to give me a reason why I should make an exception to course policies, but also to demonstrate that this student is aware of and appreciates his/her obligations as a student and commitment to the class. If the student doesn’t provide an explanation, not only does that mean I have to write a follow-up e-mail to elicit that information, but it can also produce the impression of indifference. In some cases, the tone of such e-mails seems to assume that the student is informing me that s/he will be absent, and will need to make up work, rather than recognizing that s/he needs to ask me if it’s possible to make up work. A sense of entitlement is never a good look, so it definitely makes a better impression when a student both acknowledges that s/he is asking for special dispensation, and apologizes that s/he is not able to fulfill his/her obligation.
Not only should you consider when it’s appropriate to provide information, explanations, or justifications – and how much is appropriate – but also when to express gratitude or regret. Simple acknowledgements of your professors, like thanking them for their time, can go a long way toward establishing your good character.
Be sure to check out the other posts in this series: